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30,000 Digitized Documents Retrace the Origin of ‘The Origin of Species’

The Transmutation Notebook D where Darwin first started to work on the theory that became natural selection, part of the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the AMNH (all images courtesy Darwin Manuscripts Project/AMNH)
Transmutation Notebook D, in which Charles Darwin first started working on the theory that became natural selection, part of the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the AMNH (all images courtesy Darwin Manuscripts Project/AMNH)

The digitization of Charles Darwin’s scientific archive is half completed. When it’s finished, the project will allow researchers and anyone who’s curious to follow the steps that brought the 19th-century naturalist to formulate his evolutionary theory.

The Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) announced this week that it is halfway to its goal of 30,000 digitized documents, all of which will be freely accessible online. Currently you can explore 12,000 documents covering the 25 years during which Darwin became sure of his theory.

Notes on galapagos mockingbirds from the Beagle Voyage (1835-1836)
Notes on galapagos mockingbirds from the Beagle Voyage (1835–36) (click to enlarge)

“This material is important because it shows the origin of The Origin of Species,” David Kohn, the director of the Darwin Manuscripts Project, told Hyperallergic over the phone. “It’s the only way we know to actually get into Darwin’s activity as a scientist.”

In close collaboration with Cambridge University Library, which houses many of Darwin’s scientific materials, AMNH is adding transcriptions and a scholarly structure to its high-resolution images. And transcriptions are essential, as Darwin’s handwriting is often difficult to read, and having his marginalia, notes, and letters be legible can more readily support new research.

The halfway-point announcement of the Darwin Manuscripts Project, which launched in 2007, coincides this week with the 155th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, on November 24, 1859. Its completion, planned for June 2015, will “represent the totality of all Darwin’s private writings on evolution,” Kohn said.

This includes not just his own scientific papers, but any relevant material dating from his voyage on the Beagle to South America, between 1832 and 1835, as well as from the rest of his life, which he spent defending his work (he died in 1882). There are his scribblings in books he studied, abstracts, his own book drafts, articles and their revisions, journals he read, and his notebooks on transmutation, in which he developed his observations on natural selection. There are even some charming oddities like drawings by Darwin’s children on the back of leaves of The Origin of Species, some of the few pages to survive from that original manuscript, likely kept just for the sentimental art. “It uniquely reflects the remains of a working scientist,” Kohn said.

Drawing by Darwin's children on the back of one of the leaves for the original Origin of Species
Drawing by Darwin’s children on the back of one of the leaves for the original Origin of Species
Notes on how some monkeys move the skin of their head "when enraged" to "contract it strongly over the brow"
Notes on how some monkeys move the skin of their head “when enraged” to “contract it strongly over the brow.”

Explore the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscripts Project online.

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